Ni Hao China!

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Well, after months of planning and years of dreaming we have finally made it China! We only have a 30 day visa for China but we have massive plans for it, so we are going to be on a mega tight schedule while we are here. We have decided to start in the southern province of Yunnan which is famous for its stunning scenery, ethnic minorities and for not having a jot of English in sight, then we move up to central China to the Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces and then we end with a week in Beijing up in the north. For the first time in months we have drawn up a calendar plan of where we will go but already we feel really stifled at the thought of not having a flexible itinerary. When we have met people while traveling and told them we are going to China for a month 3 things tend to happen: 1) they assume we are only going to Beijing, 2) they assume we are fluent in Mandarin and 3) they assume we are doing the whole month with an organized tour group. When we tell people that we are actually traveling the entire breadth of the country, that we don't speak a word of Mandarin and that we are doing the entire thing on our own, with no flights and all on public transport they normally look at us like we have a screw loose. One or two people have actually looked quite frightened when we have told them about our plans for China. That’s when we start to doubt ourselves, but we have done plenty of research and even though it’s going to be tough we think we can manage it…anyway it’s too late now and for better or worse we’re doing it on our own. We have been studying our Mandarin phrasebook like a pair of madmen and have been practicing at all hours of the day; it is such a difficult language though and I will be surprised if anyone can understand us.

Our flight from Hanoi was only about an hour and took us to the southern Yunnanese city of Kunming. Not only is the language barrier going to be a huge problem for us but it is also going to be really difficult for me to get veggie food while we are there; I had my first taste of how difficult on the flight when the air stewards dished out a load of beef sandwiches and I had to go without because there was no veggie alternative. Oh the joys of being veggie! The flight over was really smooth although half way through it one of the stewards had to disinfect the whole cabin with some little aerosol antiseptic canisters. We could hardly breath because of the strong fumes but the pilot came over the tanoie to tell us that the plane had to be disinfected before it could land in Kunming and that the fumes go after 30 seconds. Tom and I had heard that China is very germ-a-phobic but this having to fumigate the entire plane was quite a shock! When we landed at Kunming and taxied over to the terminal I started to get very anxious as every sign, every logo, everything I could lay my eyes on was written in Chinese characters… suddenly I realized what a huge challenge we had set ourselves. I felt in my pocket for our Mandarin phrasebook and prayed that we would be able to wing the next 30 days on barely a scrap of Mandarin. Once we had cleared customs and got our bags we headed out to find a cash-machine; it is not possible to buy any Yuan (Chinese currency) in Vietnam so we were dependant on getting some cash from a machine at the airport because otherwise we would have no money. We managed to find a machine, however it kept on rejecting our cards and we couldn’t get any cash. In a bit of a flap we headed to the currency exchange and hoped they would let us withdraw some money from my credit card; we quickly tried to cobble together a sentence in the phrasebook which would explain our problem. We approached the desk and (thank god) the lady behind the counter could speak a little bit of English! She explained that the cash-machine at the airport didn’t accept foreigners cards and that we couldn’t withdraw any cash from her. We explained that we only needed enough money for a taxi to our hostel but there was nothing she could do. We had only been in China for about half an hour and everything was falling apart already. She told us that there was a cash-machine inside a hotel down the road which might work and gave us directions to get there. It was starting to get dark and getting out of the airport on foot proved to be quite difficult, but we managed to find the hotel and withdraw some cash from their ATM. We walked back to the airport and caught a taxi into town. Even though it was a stressful situation that we could have done without I was actually really proud of us both for the way we handled it; neither of us freaked out at the prospect of being stranded in a foreign country with no money, ineffective credit cards and just a phrasebook for communication… we are proper travelers now and little problems like this don’t scare us anymore!   

The drive to our hostel was extremely surreal; in spite of myself I was very teary eyed as we drove through the streets with their neon lights and Chinese characters. We just kept looking at each other and saying 'We’re in China! I can’t believe we’re in China". It’s not possible to underestimate how important this part of the journey is to us!  We arrived at our hostel and got checked-in; it is the first time since Australia that we have stayed in a proper backpackers hostel with communal areas and a bar. The place we are staying at has got a great atmosphere, with comfy sofas and a huge outdoor balcony with views out over the city and the central square. We love it here, even if it’s a bit weird having to share a bathroom with 100 other people.  Later that evening we headed out for our first look around Kunming and our first glimpse of life in China. The first thing we noticed about the city is how quiet and serene everyone is;  having lived in southeast Asia for the last 6 month we have got used to the constant din of beeping cars, screeching motorbikes and shouting people and in comparison Kunming seemed practically silent. People glide around on electric motorbikes in utter peace and quiet. Kunming is not at all what we had expected it to be! Yes there are huge neon signs lighting up the night sky and there are crowds of people roaming the streets until the early hours of the morning, but the atmosphere here is just lovely and tranquil. What a great start to our time in China!  

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